Feminity in Film Noir

"I hate a double-crossing dame."-Kolfax, The Killers

The Femme Fatale

No, I never loved you, Walter--not you or anybody else. I'm rotten to the heart.
--Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity

The femme fatale is incapable of loving anyone else but herself. Her primary concern is self-preservation. She simulates love so she can use men to do her bidding, and she uses her beauty and charisma to bring men under her power. She is explicitly compared to a siren in some of these movies. In The Killers, for example, Kitty sings a song about love when she first meets the Swede. The lyrics describe the Swede's predicament much more than her own. "The more I know of love, the less I know..." The Swede is so blinded by his love for her that he sees nothing else-- he can't even see what she is really like. He sees only what he wants to see, and she's happy to help him.

...When he did fall, it had to be for dynamite...

Kitty's beauty and her voice hold the Swede in thrall. From then on, everything he does it motivated by Kitty. In The Lady from Shanghai, Welles makes the setting a yacht named "Circe", for much of the action, implicitly comparing Elsa to the witch in the Odyssey who turned Odysseus' men into pigs. Her behavior is quite frequently fatal to both herself and the man involved. After she betrays the protagonist, she often meets a violent end, as do Phyllis and Elsa, or she could go to jail, like Kitty.
To cast the femme fatale's evil characteristics into relief, these films often offer another type of woman as her foil.

Good Women

In The Killers, Lilly (an obviously symbolic name) is the counterpart to the vampish Kitty (as in kitty-cat). Lilly is the girl next door. She is benign and cute, and thus consequently much less exciting to the protagonist (the Swede). In the non-flashback scenes, we find out that Lilly is happily married to the Swede's best friend, a policeman and is happily domesticated. Wearing an apron and housedress, she cheerfully serves her husband and the insurance investigator while they discuss the case. Lola, in Double Indemnity, serves the same function for Phyllis. Lola is Phyllis' step-daughter. She is young, innocent, and utterly without guile. Thus, it is very illuminating of Phyllis' character when she warns Walter not to be taken in by Lola's crying, that it is all an "act" designed to manipulate him. Of course, she would know, having used the same tricks on Walter earlier. The difference is that Lola actually does need help. Lola is pure and innocent, though not entirely submissive. She rebels against her father by her insistence on continuing her relationship with her no-good boyfriend.

She would have been a better choice, but did Walter really have a choice?

Agents of Fate

The element of choice often seems absent in these films. This deterministic aspect is compounded by the use of flashbacks as a narrative style. These can be told by the protagonist as in Double Indemnity, or, in the case of The Killers, it is flashbacks collected by the insurance claims investigator after the Swede has died. In both cases, the action is already a fait accompli, and in re-telling it, he cannot change the events. This gives it a sense of inevitability-- he is just an unfortunate man in a cruel world. The protagonist does not consciously choose to follow the siren song of the femme fatale, rather, he is drawn irresistably to her and she always ruins him.

The femme fatale provokes a kind of temporary insanity in the protagonist, which partially absolves him from responsibility for his actions. It is as though she happens to him, like a natural force. In The Lady from Shanghai, Mike describes Elsa's effect on him after their first meeting, "I didn't use my brain much [after that] except to be thinking of her."

...and that might be why I start out in this story a
little bit like a hero...which I most certainly am not.

He is not just being modest in saying this, Mike is truly not the hero. There can be no hero amid so much moral ambiguity. He only seems like one at this moment in the film because he has responded to a damsel in distress in a scripted way. All Mike does is respond to stimulus. Heroes are given the opportunity to choose between right and wrong, but the choice is never clear to Mike. He does not know who is good and who is evil-- he cannot even side with the law because the law has blindly turned on him, and moves forward machinelike through the travesty of his trial for the murder he did not commit.

In The Killers, the Swede goes to jail for Kitty when she is obviously guilty. In Double Indemnity, Walter becomes obsessed with Phyllis, and cannot stop thinking about her. Walter knows what she wants from him, and he explicitly tells her that he won't help her kill her husband. However, he says, his attempt to escape her was futile. Somehow it was ordained to happen. Thus, when she arrives at his apartment, he is not surprised, and caves to her demands almost immediately.
I knew I had a hold of a red-hot poker and the
time to drop it was before it burned my hand off.

One notable exception to this rule of fatal attraction is in The Big Sleep. Mrs. Rutledge (Bacall) is actually not a femme fatale at all, though she initially displays many of the usual markers: she is secretive about her activities, tries to use her feminine wiles to obstruct Marlowe's investigation, and as an unexplained divorcee who likes to gamble, she has a shady past. She has a mellifluous and throaty alto voice--described by some as mannish. She is also wearing pants when most of the other women in these films wear only skirts. The following clip is from her first encounter with Marlowe, in which both are trying to get information out of each other and hitting up against a brick wall. Although he is probably attracted to her, Marlowe refuses to bend to her will, as he makes abundantly clear. From her imperious manner, it is obvious that her accusation that he treats people like "trained seals" is somewhat hypocritical.

Don't waste your time trying to
cross-examine me.

The key difference between Mrs. Rutledge and other femmes fatales is that she does not betray him. In the end, she genuinely falls in love with Marlowe, and he with her. This becomes most clear when she starts taking orders from him. She says she will not untie him until after he promises to lay off his investigation. He refuses, and then asks her to do it anyway; she complies, and they kiss. After this, she becomes his sidekick for the rest of the movie, doing what he needs her to do, and solicitous of his welfare. She has been domesticated by love and neutralized as a threat to Marlowe's masculinity.

The femme fatale who cannot be neutralized in this manner, must either die ( Double Indemnity and The Lady from Shanghai) or go to jail for her crimes (The Killers) in order to restore balance to the gendered order. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff kills her himself, and seems justified in doing so.

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